By Julia Purdy
On Tuesday, Jan. 19, Congressman Peter Welch hosted a live town hall meeting by telephone to take the public pulse on the takeover of the U.S. Capitol of January 6. Call-in “town meetings” are a service of Congressman Welch and others to stay in touch with their constituents in a direct and meaningful way.
Rep. Welch opened the virtual gathering with an account of his experience walking to the Capitol in the moments before the attack. He could see that people were gathering and shouting “epithets” toward the building but there was no immediate sign that “the mob would become a mob,” he said.
The process of electoral certification was “routine,” he said, but social distancing required members of Congress to spread out through the chamber…at one point he could see security people rush to remove Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence, “no questions asked,” but still the members “had no inkling what was going on” and the process continued, until the Capitol guards warned of the breach, which was “unthinkable . . . how that could happen,” Welch said.
Welch said he was seated in the farthest corner of the gallery by an exit. Tear gas was announced and the members were instructed to don gas masks. The guards were securing all the doors. Security pulled guns out and aimed them at the secured doors. He thought he heard a gunshot, which was corroborated by a colleague who apparently had been an Army Ranger, but that was the only one they heard.
While the outer doors were being “battered” the members eventually got out and had to wait for several hours. “Our jobs HAD to be done,” going through the certifications state by state. It is a formality, but it had to be done, Welch emphasized.
Welch described the president’s behavior as “the most gross conduct.” Welch said that President Trump assembled the mob, incited them and instructed them to force the members of Congress to reverse the election results, “the most terrible thing an elected official can do, let alone the president of the United States … totally anathema to our democratic tradition … the violence abetted by the president is absolutely appalling.”
But, Welch insisted, the inauguration would go forward as planned.
A caller from Weathersfield commented that charges of illegal entry seem minor compared to the fact of the insurrection. “Is the FBI waiting to charge more serious crimes until after the inauguration?” the caller asked.
“I agree with you,” Welch responded, adding that it is standard practice to start with a relatively straight forward charge and then follow up with a more serious charge.
A caller from Putney asked Welch to “give us a flavor of how you will mobilize yourselves as a new Congress, how do you stabilize the sense of working together as Democrats and Republicans?”
Welch said: “Biden is doing a good job” of reestablishing normalcy, and the focus on Covid is critical. Challenging the election is “a bridge too far” and the GOP has to take a good look at itself but the pandemic and economic relief can bring us together.
A caller from Wilder wanted to know, “Why keep spending more money on a second impeachment and give him a public platform?”
“That’s a fair point,” Welch said. “If we want to have a democracy and unity, we can’t have that without accountability … We can’t just turn a blind eye.” The timing of [the decision to impeach] “was set by Trump” himself, Welch added.
“We have to focus on the Biden agenda, there is a premium on doing this impeachment very fast,” he said. “You have a president here who basically subverted the will of the people – the election – that you and so many have so well served.”
A caller from Brownington asked what Congress will do about the millions of people who believe the election was rigged: “These people are fed up with Congress as a whole, this situation did not come to a head overnight.” The he-said-she-said is not making our country better.
Welch said he doesn’t “buy” that huge numbers of people believe the election was bogus. The president has a “big bullhorn,” but the officials have stood up to him. “He made up a lie and he made us agree with him … We have an economy that is not working for a lot of people,” Welch said.
Another caller noted, “I have been watching the failure of respect for the sitting president for four years now, and I often feel that was so, so wrong. Is this continual barrage of accusations contributing to this moment?” the caller asked.
Welch said: “I share your problem, there is so much anger and vitriol in politics … In Vermont we have a tradition of respect for each other even when we vigorously disagree. We have to understand we are all in it together. If I could have worked with [the president] I would have worked with him … The president has taken insult to a high art form … We are well beyond the question of courtesy,” he said, adding that President Trump himself instigated people to attack the Capitol, fomenting insurrection. “The president has responsibility as the custodian of our democracy,” he said.
A caller from Randolph asked: “My biggest concern is those members on the Republican side, including those who knew the election was fair, and yet some there in the Capitol gave support to the insurrection. You now have to go back into Congress with people you can’t be sure you can trust. Can we root them out?”
Welch responded: “Yes,” adding that Congress members, especially those with young families, have been very scared for their safety. “It is not a disagreement about policy,” it goes to a more fundamental disloyalty. “If some of my colleagues were actively involved they should be expelled,” Welch said.
A caller from Tinmouth noted that “people in my town are part of that faction, even though they did not take part, and blamed social media and ignorance.
Welch agreed: “Social media’s whole model is based on stirring up controversy. The more clicks they generate the more advertising dollars they get. I will be looking at how we can have more social responsibility in that media space.”
A caller from Johnson wanted to know: What is actual accountability? What actions does it consist of?
Welch answered: “There is an internal process through the ethics committee to expel a member of Congress. That member who is expelled can then be prosecuted under criminal law” and incarcerated if found guilty.
Welch concluded the telephone town hall by saying: “All of us have been rocked” by what happened in the nation’s Capitol. “I will be at the inauguration tomorrow representing Vermont,” adding that he is so proud to be from Vermont where we respect the peaceful transfer of power and pulling together to solve problems.
“We have to get that going nationally … We in the federal government are the only place where there is the flexibility” to build a bridge “to get to the other side,” he said.